ST. LOUIS, MO. and NORTHEAST HARBOR — Mary Taussig Hall, a social activist, arts supporter and longtime summer resident of Northeast Harbor, died Aug. 12, 2015, at age 104, at her home in St. Louis in the presence of her family.
She was born in St. Louis, Feb. 21, 1911, the daughter of an ardent suffragist Florence Gottschalk and Dr. Frederick Taussig, a pioneering doctor in the field of women’s health and in providing health care to the indigent.
Mrs. Hall’s long career championing a variety of progressive causes started 99 years ago, when at the age of 5 she stood with her mother and another little girl, Martha Gellhorn (who later became a renowned war correspondent), at the head of a march of 7,000 women wearing yellow sashes, demanding the right to vote.
Mary grew up to be an elegant-looking and charming young woman, but instead of taking a position as a fledgling doyenne of high society or the wife of some very important person after she graduated Bryn Mawr College (1933), she instead became of protégé of Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in Chicago, a residential and educational facility for recently arrived immigrants.
Inspired by Addams’ example, Mary enrolled at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. Her particular focus became the plight of tiff miner families in Missouri, especially the children who were brought down into the coal mines as soon as they could be strapped to their mothers’ backs and spent most of their lives there until they were too old and or too damaged to dig the cheap grade of coal. In an effort to improve both the minds and the health of these miners Mary helped establish a literacy program and a public health center for them. Later, when machines put many of the miners out of work, she supported new programs to train them for other jobs.
While her winters were spent visiting and advocating for the coal miner families in their homes and deep in the mines, her summers were spent with her family in Northeast Harbor at the posh Asticou Inn. Somehow the young woman managed to make these transitions with grace and a keen understanding that with great privilege comes a greater responsibility to give back.
In fact, she took this responsibility so seriously her various causes kept her too busy for romance. It took a suitor, L. Benoist Tompkins, several years of dogged courtship until, at last in 1941— while she was studying for her Civil Service examinations in Washington, D.C. — she agreed to marry him.
After that, the couple summered in upstate Michigan rather than MDI.
In 1950, Mr. Tompkins died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving his wife with two small children, Frederick and Mary “Mimi.”
The loss of her husband only fueled Mary’s desire to help others and change the world for the better. She devoted her energies into turning the struggling St. Louis Welfare Department into an efficient and vital resource for the poor of her city.
In the ’70s, she became involved with United Nations Association of Greater St. Louis, an organization striving to solve global problems on a local level. It was Mary’s abiding belief that a peaceful world could never be achieved until basic societal goals and human needs were met. Her UN chapter became a model for other cities throughout the country.
She was also a tireless campaigner for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and was crushed when Eisenhower defeated him in a landslide in 1952.
That disappointment was softened somewhat that same year when she married Thomas S. Hall, the dean of the liberal arts college at Washington University.
With her new husband she returned to Mount Desert Island in the summers, where they rented a home on Peabody Drive, in Northeast Harbor, and later built their own contemporary home on the site of the Mary Wheelwright mansion which had been torn down in the ’30s.
Theirs was one of the first gardens to combine Western gardening with Asian influences. The Hall’s flowerbeds, sunken rose garden and thoughtfully groomed forest pathways became a highlight of local garden tours.
The Northeast Harbor home also became a summer haven for many of their Midwest friends, and their dinner table the forum for many lively political and progressive conversations.
Although Mrs. Hall used most of her time on MDI to relax from the pressures and stresses of her life and work in St. Louis — by hiking island trails with Tom and catching up with old friends such as Lois Eliot and Cynthia Martin — her habit of doing good works could not be entirely suppressed. A passionate devotee of classical music, she was instrumental, 52 years ago, in the founding of the Mount Desert Festival of Chamber Music, which continues today. She served on the board of the festival for 40 years.
As the daughter of and a woman who, herself, managed to seamlessly combine the worlds of social activism, family and the demands of “polite society,” Mrs. Hall was determined that her own daughter Mimi (Houghton) understood that life was not all about country clubs and debutante balls.
“When I was preparing for my own debut, which is a really big deal in St. Louis,” recalls her Mimi, “my mother took me aside from amidst finding the right white ball gown and gloves and rehearsing the perfect curtsey, to remind me that this was not all there was to life. And then, to make sure I got the message, she signed me up as a volunteer for the first Head Start program in the poor section of North St. Louis.”
It was a message her daughter, who eventually became a social worker herself, heard loud and clear. Her son Fred followed the other passion in his mother’s life and became a musician and composer.
After Tom died, Mary continued to come back every summer to Northeast, until her 96th year and continued, as long as she was able, working for her causes and for the Democratic candidates she admired.
Mary had made plans to donate her body to the Washington University School of Medicine to be used in scientific research, thus even after death she continues her century-long legacy of giving back with, quite literally, every fiber of her being.
In addition to her son Fred and his wife, Odile, and daughter Mimi and her husband Neil, Mrs. Hall is survived by her grandchildren Kitty Sahin and her husband, Mustafa; Neil Houghton Jr. and his wife, Wendy Waldron; Anne-Cecile Tompkins and Charles Tompkins, as well as four great-grandchildren.
Services for Mrs. Hall will be private. The family asks that friends who wish make donations in her memory can give to The Mount Desert Festival of Chamber Music, P.O. Box 87, Mount Desert, ME 04660.